Uncle Russ, the Poet


Lisa Emmett recently contacted me about my Uncle Russ. She read my post about him – “In Memoriam – Russell Erwin Kees (1927-2016)” – and wondered if my uncle was the author of a poem she had.

Apparently, her mother died last year and as she was going through her mother’s things, she found a poem in a jewelry box by Russell E. Kees. As we compared notes, we learned that both her mother, the former Rosella VanderKlok, and my Uncle Russ were born in 1927, so they were contemporaries. Additionally, Rosella grew up and lived in Grand Rapids, Michigan, until the 1950s. My uncle lived in Grand Rapids from about 1937 to about 1944. So they were in the same place at the same time. So, there is no doubt in my mind that the poem, “To Rosa” is a poem from my uncle to a young woman, written sometime from when they were teens, probably 16 or 17 years old.

Photo of Russell Kees in army uniform
Russell Kees c. 1952

Rosella VanderKlok


“Rosa” by Russell E. Kees

I’ll admit I’m rather slow,
When it comes to words of grace,
So I’ll tell it to you in a poem,
Rather than face to face.

I realize we’ve barely met,
Except for a week or two,
But I think that the time is coming close,
To speak of my love for you.

No don’t get red and blush and fret,
‘Cause it happens every day,
Boy meets girl, and falls in love,
That’s why I feel this way.

I may joke like I did last night,
About things we were going to do,
But deep inside, I keep the hope,
That someday they might come true.

I was happy to see you wear my ring,
And although I have no right,
To lie here in bed and think of you,
As mine for a single night.

I’ve tried for an hour to write a poem,
Explaining just how I feel,
But after I’ve read it, (and I’m glad that I said it)
I feel like a lowdown feel.

So here is the poem I said I would write,
God help me for being blunt,
But truth is stranger than fiction, you know,
And the true is, this poem’s NO stunt.

May God give me the courage to look you in the eye again
after you’ve read this!!!!!!

(But the Truest)

                           by Russell E. Kees

Russell and Rosa must have had a very special relationship for Rosa to have kept the poem for nearly 75 years. The poem also provides insight into Russell, whose youth experiences have always been a mystery to me.  My thanks to Lisa for sharing this glimpse into their teenage lives.

Donna in Grand Rapids, MI, at the Powers Theatre – Feb 20-21, 1920

Donna in Grand Rapids, MI, at the Powers Theatre – Feb 20-21, 1920

Via Pinterest - http://www.pinterest.com/pin/154177987213550313/
Hotel Herkimer abt 1912
Via Pinterest from eBay

No great birthday celebration for Donna for her twenty-seventh birthday.  She was working as the Chin Chin cast were opening at the Powers Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The cast, probably stayed at the Hotel Herkimer, a “refined home for professionals” a few blocks away.  The Herkimer was a regular accommodation place for vaudeville shows. This was a return engagement, so most of the cast knew where things were in town. “Chin Chin” spent two nights at the Powers Theatre. Articles, press releases and advertising were scant in the Grand Rapids [evening] “Press,” but this city of about 135,000 had three other newspapers, the morning “Herald,” the evening “News,” and a weekly, the “Chronicle.”  Pre-show newspaper articles in the “Press” indicated that they had new scenery and new costumes since the previous season’s showing in Grand Rapids.  Between the first and second nights, the paper called out Donna by name.

“Chin Chin” on Return Date at Powers
“Chin Chin” at Powers Saturday and Sunday is not the “Chin Chin” of yesterday, but many who viewed it were apparently satisied. Walter Wills and Roy Binder, as Chinese clowns, are the heart of the show. Tom Brown’s clown band under the leadership of Lew Gould, and radiant Donna Montran as the “goddess of the lamp,” are also shining lights of comedy.

I hope she had a happy birthday celebration after the show.  

The Powers Theater

Construction of the original Powers’ Opera House began in 1873 and the theater opened on 12 May 1874.  The original theater had a seating capacity of about 1300. The main floor was above ground level. That building succumbed to a fire in 1892 that gutted the interior, The interior was rebuilt and new four-story with rounded bays was added to the east end of the building.  On September 13, 1901 the theater was again aflame. This time, the fire totaled the building which caused it to be rebuilt completely as the Powers’ Theater.  The rebuilt design put the main theater floor at ground level and increased capacity.
Powers Opera House
Courtesy: Grand Rapids Historical Commission 
In 1914, the old facade was replaced with a new brick and terra cotta facade. The Powers’ Theatre was the largest theatre in Grand Rapids when Donna and Chin Chin played there in 1920. Grand Rapids had a population of about 135,000 and the theater had a capacity of 1,619, which means that more than 1% of the city’s population could attend a show there.  The stage was very large, sixty-six feet wide and forty feet deep. Backstage was also spacious with sixty-five feet up to the rigging loft. The 1913 Theatrical Guide indicates that it used 110 volt direct current for its illumination. Don’t know when it’s DC system was replaced with alternating current (AC).
The theater underwent several additional renovations and another fire, and renovation, in 1942. In 1944, it opened up as “Foto News” and ran newsreals.  The theater was remodeled again in 1948 and converted to become the Midtown Theater which it stayed as until 1972 when it closed.  It was rented for a few concerts and other activities for a few years, but when renovation costs got to be too much it was torn down in January of 1979.
Today the location is a parking ramp.


Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), Feb 19, 1920 – Page 6,  via  Genealogy Bank
Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, MI), Feb 23, 1920 – Page 6,  via via  Genealogy Bank
Website: Powers behind Grand Rapids – Powers Theatre 
Website: History Grand Rapids Org. – Early Grand Rapids Halls and Theaters by Albert Baxter.
The Cahn-Leighton Official Theatrical Guide – 1913-1914